January 5, 2003

The politics of a touchdown

By: Todd J. Weiner

If you’re a sports junkie, you have to be disappointed in Sunday’s Super Bowl match-up. What should have been a classic, nail-biting thriller between the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers turned into an embarassing rout. But if you’re a political junkie, you had even more reason to be disappointed with the ouctome. After all, none of the Oakland or Tampa Bay players publicly shared their feelings about the impending war with Iraq!

Don’t these guys know that it is the responsibility of millionaire celebrities to express their views about global events that they know nothing about? Can’t pro athletes be more like–well, like–Hollywood stars? Can’t they be more like singer Sheryl Crow who attended this month’s American Music Awards dressed in a t-shirt with the message, “War is the Not the Answer?” Or more like singer Barbra Streisand, who breathlessly faxed a memo to former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt before last year’s elections ordering Democrats to “go on the offensive” on the anti-war issue?

How come you will never see Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp–who has an opinion on almost everything–join Martin Sheen in an anti-war rally and shout “No Blood for Oil?” Why would you be more likely to smell smoked ham at a PETA rally than see Oakland wide receiver Jerry Rice sign the “peace” petition that Kim Basinger and Matt Damon courageously endorsed?

And let’s not even get started on Sean Penn.

Come to think of it, not a single professional athlete has offered his opinion about the U.N. inspections in Baghdad, the exploding budget deficit, or the Democratic field for 2004.
Part of the reason–shhh, this is a secret–is that most athletes are politically conservative, and like most conservatives, they are modest in their political aims and efforts. Jules Tygiel, author of the book The Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, says that with the exception of Bill Bradley, almost all of the professional athletes who have entered politics after retirement are conservative Republicans. Tom Osborne was a legendary head football coach at the University of Nebraska. Today he is a Republican Congressman from Nebraska’s third district. Jim Bunning was a Hall-of-Fame pitcher in the 1950s and 1960s. Today he is a Republican Senator from Kentucky. Jack Kemp, J.C. Watts, and Steve Largent are recent pro-athletes-turned-elected-officials and rumors persist that John Elway, Cal Ripken, and Charles Barkley nurture political ambitions–all as Republicans. Even Robinson, the African-American legend who broke baseball’s color barrier, was an unflinching Republican.

On the surface, this is extremely perplexing. Professional athletes are filthy rich, are always in the public eye, and are an object of worship for millions of fans. Hollywood stars are also filthy rich, are always in the public eye, and are objects of worship for millions of fans. Why then do the latter become mouthpieces for the most tiresome liberal causes while the former quietly do their jobs and vote for the G.O.P on the first Tuesday in November?

There are a handful of theories, none of them completely convincing. The most likely answer, I think, has to do with the relationship between productivity and guilt. Let me explain: Accumulating great wealth in a very short time can bring a person great joy and satisfaction but it can also flood a person with feelings of guilt and remorse. “I’m no better than the next guy, how in the world did I get so lucky?”

While both actors and athletes can feel pangs of guilt, the Hollywood glitterati feel it far more intensely because theirs is an industry built on emotion and image whereas athletes apply their craft in a world of strenuous physical effort and where productively is closely correlated with results.

If Matt Damon wants to become a better actor–and earn more cash–he doesn’t necessarily have to work harder. He just needs to “feel” more when he’s acting his assigned part and hire a superior PR team to sculpt his image. The same interplay of emotion and image does not work in the world of professional sports. For Barry Bonds, success doesn’t magically appear from burying his head in his hands, sitting in a dark room and conjuring up painful childhood memories. Rather, it comes from physical labor–bench presses, knee bends, squat thrusts. Furthermore, if he can’t hit the ball a lick, public relations is useless. You either hit the ball or you’re off the team. There are clear, indisputable measuring sticks of productivity–RBIs, passing yards, field goal percentage, goals against average. No such yardsticks exist in Hollywood.

The suppressed guilt of Hollywood actors and directors is projected onto all sorts of political pet projects–always to help the supposedly less fortunate, whether it is Iraqi children or Alaskan caribou. The world’s problems are not a result of conflicting interests but of an absence of commitment, in other words, a lack of “feeling.” Because of strenuous physical effort and their closeness to productivity, the conservative politics of individual initiative, hard work, and opportunity resonates with pro athletes.

Which is superior: the liberal ideology of actors or the conservative ideology of athletes? That is up to the reader, of course, but personally I would rather take my political cues from men and women whose livelihood is grounded in the real, tangible world I am familiar with where hard work equals productivity–and ignore the screams of so-called stars who earn their cash in a world of fantasy and make-believe.

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